When Religion Becomes Fair Game: If Presidential Candidates Court the Faithful They Should Also Answer Questions of Faith

When religion becomes fair game; If candidates can court the faithful, they should be willing to answer questions of faith as well.      

In the race for the White House this year, speeches have turned sharply from the political to the biblical as Democrats have strived to close the “God gap” with Republicans over the religious vote.  Yet, when pressed about their own faith or faithlessness, candidates have been less eager to answer, claiming that such questions are personal and beyond the pale. But it may be time to demand that, when politicians call to the faithful, they should have to answer to the faithful on their own religious practices.

This election, the candidates are talking so much about faith that one would think they wanted to be in the College of Cardinals rather than the Hall of Presidents. In one Republican debate, candidates spoke of their faith 16 times. Three of the 10 candidates (Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who later dropped out, former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, and Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado) have even publicly proclaimed that they did not believe in evolution. 

On the Democratic side, the candidates have competed equally in the parade of the pious. Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois led the way and recently proclaimed his intention to be “an instrument of God” and to create “a Kingdom right here on earth.” Even the title of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, was taken from sermons by his controversial spiritual adviser, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

Other Democratic candidates have responded by proselytizing on their own divine qualifications. In one debate, the Democrats held forth on the power of prayer and the role of their faith in their public lives. Hillary Clinton has described her own “faith journey,” her experiencing “the presence of the Holy Spirit on many occasions,” and how she is assisted by an “extended prayer family” and “faith warriors.”

There is no question that references to the Bible have been used by presidents since George Washington. More than anyone else, however, George W. Bush can be credited with making faith-based appeals not just a mantra but an agenda for modern candidates. When asked during the 2000 primary to name his favorite political philosopher, Bush immediately declared, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” While perhaps a bit confused by Jesus’ emergence as a political philosopher rather than religious figure, other candidates sheepishly followed suit. Ironically, it was strikingly similar to the faith-based campaigning by another national leader: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. For some reason, it seems more threatening when it is someone else’s God who is guiding the head of a nation.

Uncomfortable questions
Now, all of the talk of faith has led the faithful to ask some uncomfortable questions. When asked about his multiple marriages and sketchy church-going habits, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani’s campaign insisted that “the mayor’s personal relationship with God is private and between him and God.”Yet, when one is campaigning evangelically, it is hard to maintain that the faithful flock should not question the shepherd. There is particular sensitivity over in the Romney camp. Mitt Romney is a former bishop and stake president (or head of a collection of congregations) in his church, but he has largely refused to discuss the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-day Saints. Romney admitted last week that his staff does not want any in-depth discussion of LDS on the campaign trail. The church remains controversial with many religious voters who view it as non-Christian and polytheistic.

Even so, Romney is actively courting the faithful, including changing his positions on key moral issues, such as abortion and the gay marriage amendment, due to personal (if belated) conversions. He has called Jesus Christ “my personal Lord and savior” and alluded to the Gideon Bible as his favorite reading, leaving Mormons and non-Mormons wondering about his faith values. If religion is the most important factor in a person’s life and directs his decisions on issues such as gay marriage, why should the electorate not learn about that faith?

Under this approach, the public would be equally barred from knowing about a person’s views of Scientology or some apocalyptic religion that guides a candidate. Likewise, for people voting on a religious agenda, a person’s faith-based promises are only as good as his or her personal faith.

Among the faithful, one subgroup has particularly pressing questions: Muslims. New York Rep. Pete King, a Giuliani adviser, proclaimed that there are “too many mosques in this country.” McCain has said that he would not like to see a Muslim in the Oval Office: “I just have to say in all candor that since this nation was founded primarily on Christian principles … personally, I prefer someone who I know has a solid grounding in my faith.” Christianity, he noted is “an important part of our qualifications to lead.” Facing a torrent of criticism, he later appeared to expand the eligibility list to “Judeo-Christian” candidates — leaving only Muslims, Buddhists and every other religion as presumptively unqualified.

Voting on faith
McCain appeared to be playing to recent polls that say 37% of voters are unlikely to vote for a Mormon and 54% are unlikely to vote for a Muslim. More than 50% said they would never vote for an atheist. McCain’s 95-year-old mother recently appeared with her son and attacked Mormons as a group. (McCain disassociated himself from his mom’s remarks.)

It is not only the faithful who have questions. For secular Americans, the news that roughly one-third of Republican candidates do not believe in evolution was no doubt unnerving. Yet non-religious voters have been largely written off by Republicans and Democrats, despite the fact that there are 20 million atheist and non-religious citizens. When you add citizens who believe in both God and secular government, the percentage is much higher. That means that tens of millions of people might want to know what these candidates mean by creating “kingdoms” and being servants of their respective gods.

It might be time to put sensitivities aside and “out” those who run on piety while invoking privacy on the details of their own faithfulness. On infidelity or homosexuality, reporters have tended not to expose politicians unless they run on family values (such as Sens. David Vitter or Larry Craig) or invite such review (such as former presidential candidate Gary Hart).Of course, not everyone is Bible-thumping his way to victory. Giuliani last month told a religious convention that he is frankly “not always the best example of faith.” Those running on secular issues have every right to keep their religious views private.

The religiosity in the current campaigns represents an important choice by those candidates who chose sectarian over secular values in government.Obama strongly chastised people who objected to the religiosity that has become the norm in American politics. “Secularists,” he insisted, “are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square.” But “believers” are equally wrong to refuse to answer questions of their beliefs once they cross that political river Jordan and begin to proselytize for the presidency. After all, in 2 Corinthians 13:5, the faithful are instructed to “examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves.” Perhaps, by testing the politically pious, we can all hope for a degree of enlightenment in this election.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s board of contributors. November 19, 2007 

19 thoughts on “When Religion Becomes Fair Game: If Presidential Candidates Court the Faithful They Should Also Answer Questions of Faith”

  1. Well, many are betting on the rapture to make all of that moot. Besides, who better to lecture the nation on morality than our politicians?

  2. I find it interesting that while the religious right is gaining power in this nation, the % of PhD candidates in the sciences are increasingly foreign. I wan’t so bad when they stayed here after graduating, but now they are increasingly returning to their country.
    While the USA is reducing the space program these nations receiving the PhDs are increasing their space programs.
    Who is going to control the world? A USA dominated by religious fanatics or the secular nations receiving the PhD candidates from the USA universities.

  3. The kind of discussion politicians should have of religion focuses on moral values, their real-life effects, conditions conducive to the adoption and expression of such values, and the intersection of such values with secular law. As our nation is not a theocratic, moral values can’t be automatically translated into the musts and must-nots of secular law. Other considerations come into play: priorities where values collide; the value of personal liberty itself; whether a given legal prohibition or mandate would have the desired effect (it could make things worse); and so forth. Our criminal justice system is already overtaxed and dysfunctional, so making more things illegal without fixing that first doesn’t strike me as a very sensible way to go.

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